Gators shoot for another score

Posted: April 02, 2007

ATLANTA - The Gator Haters aren't entirely wrong.

There is good reason to not like these people. The University of Florida has shanghaied college athletics, making everyone else, well, Gator bait.

Basketball championship? Got it.

BCS title game? Took care of that, too.

Another shot at another hoops title? Why not?

It says on a banner hanging right here in the Georgia Dome that the NCAA crowns 88 champions in 23 sports. Funny how it seems like all the trophies keep heading south to Gainesville.

Tonight, Ohio State's basketball players will try to do what its football team could not do 3 months ago. Namely, stop the Florida gravy train. The Gators, who tackle the Buckeyes in the NCAA championship game, have won 17 consecutive postseason games, a streak not matched since the great UCLA teams in the 1960s and '70s and 21 of their last 22 postseason contests, the loss coming at the hands of Villanova in the second round of the 2005 NCAA Tournament.

Oh, by the way, they're also trying to become the first team since Duke in 1992 to win back-to-back national titles.

The tricky thing about this group of Gators, though, is what you see isn't at all what you get. Florida preens and prances more than aspiring beauty queens at a kiddie pageant. They chest-bump and low five, nod their heads and Gator chomp, they talk, they dance, they do all those things that people not wearing blue and orange hate.

But as much as Florida acts arrogant, it doesn't play that way. For all the on-court histrionics, these guys could be the most unselfish stars since the Osmond family.

Their stats are astounding. The starting five is clumped so it's hard to distinguish one from the other. The difference between the most field goals attempted, by Corey Brewer, and the least, by Joakim Noah is 61. Comically, the scoring averages step down in increments, 13.3 to 13.2 to 13.1 and then 12.1 and 10.2.

This isn't Princeton, where suppressing individual needs is required to win. This is a team that includes a McDonald's All-American in Brewer, three future NBA players in Al Horford, Taurean Green and Noah and a deadeye shooter in Lee Humphrey that would make J.J. Redick blush.

"I've never had a situation here at Florida coaching these guys where they say, 'You know, coach, I need more shots. Coach, I need more touches. Coach, I need more minutes.' It's always been about our team," Gators coach Billy Donovan said.

"Chris Richard being a senior and a good player may warrant more minutes. A guy like Corey Brewer may warrant more shots. A guy like Taurean Green may warrant more shots. But they somehow understand the concept of less for myself is more for our team."

In the process, the Gators have done something no one ever thought possible. Forget trying to win back-to-back national championships. Florida has made basketball relevant in a state where hoops season is usually referred to as football recruiting season.

Donovan credits an athletic department that is committed across the board to success. Florida might always be a football school but refuses to pigeonhole itself into that image. Urban Meyer came to talk to Donovan's boys and was in the stands on Saturday night and the basketball players gleefully watched their peers beat Ohio State in January.

"It's not a battle of who gets more of the publicity," Green said. "We both support each other. We just want to see each other do well."

The same can be said internally on this Florida team. Sad but true, selflessness has become a dinosaur in athletics. No one wants to be the guy who sets the screen. Everyone wants to be using the screen.

At Florida, everybody sets screens including the most unassuming one who also could be the best of the bunch. Horford scored just nine points against UCLA on Saturday night and couldn't have been happier. When Humphrey started draining threes (the senior has taken exactly two two-pointers in the entire tournament), no one clapped or cheered louder than Horford.

Teammates insist Horford is every bit a clown as they are, that this strong, silent thing is just for show. He's just far subtler about it. When the players yesterday were asked how many times they've been asked if they could defend their title, unprompted, Horford said, "86,344."

The son of former NBA player Tito Horford, the junior has grown into a man who is about to become exceedingly wealthy. He spent the summer developing a midrange jumper and working on his left hand and has mastered both. His numbers, like everyone else's on this Gators team, don't tell how good and dominating he really is. He averages 13.1 points and 9.4 rebounds but can simply take over a game if the defense allows it.

"To see his transformation as a player is truly incredible," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said of Horford. Matta recruited Horford, who moved to Michigan from his native Dominican Republic when he was 14. "I think that he is one of the best power forwards in the country. His ability to score down low, [he] uses both hands. He can rebound, he can pass, bust out dribbles, great defender. I think he is a special talent, I really do."

Horford, naturally, begs to differ. Following the theme of the athletic department, the theme of his team, he sees himself as just another cog in the wheel.

What he does on the court, how he behaves off of it, is all part of a bigger picture, the picture that has taken over college sports like some sort of blue-and-orange mushroom cloud. *

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